TELEVISION / Carlton wins the booby prize
Sunday 05 December 1993
Adapted from Carol Clewlow's lamentable novel of the same name, the serial tells the story of four friends: two are having affairs with married men, while Jennifer flirts with the idea and Rose (Theresa Russell) piously observes the 11th Commandment - thou shalt not hurt another woman. But, oh, be still her beating heart] Look who comes hither - why, if it isn't scrummy Sean Bean playing photography lecturer Paul with a laughable haircut and lines to match. Paul is already spoken for, but he's so talented in the darkroom that we know it's only a matter of time before Rose joins him there for further developments.
The photography analogy bears some enlargement. Given the kind of theoretical tosh Paul spouts - not so much Roland Barthes as Bart Simpson - you began to suspect that he had crossed to the other side of the camera. It certainly appeared to be manned by an amateur snapper whose idea of style is to turn up the soft-focus and bung on a starburst filter for a candlelit-dinner scene. We only saw the truth in flashes: Jennifer's grin of triumph as a rival in love is shown to grumpy disadvantage, the cuckolded Michael (Adrian Dunbar) glugging his wife's new perfume down the sink after catching the scent of betrayal.
This is another great performance from Dunbar - a study in steady anguish punctuated by jabs of rage - but he has been the lily on the dungheap once too often recently. Sad that he must bloom unseen by awards judges. The other stars look dull beside him. Russell has none of the lustre her husband, director Nic Roeg, manages to coax out of her, and it would take a stevedore to make light work of Paul's lines. Bean was better off murmuring sour nothings in the hut with Lady Chatterley.
The conflict between duty and personal happiness is one of the burning issues of the age, but here it is served up in cook-chill slabs: 'Even a bit of the worst sort of love is better than all the well-ordered successful loneliness in the world.' Beset by so many unrefreshed cliches, I thought it was time for a dash to the kettle. Seconds later, I came back to find things were hotting up: 'I hate you so much, I think I'm going to die from it]' It turned out to be the new advert for Chanel No 5.
Adultery has many sins, but its most grievous is one of omission. Millions of women will have tuned in to catch the Bean bum. When it comes to bottoms, Sean's the tops. With the amount of barefaced cheek going on here, it seems perverse to have left out the only kind worth seeing. I have this terrible feeling I'll be watching again tomorrow night.
If Carlton has its way, of course, we'll be watching this kind of thing every night. On a recent Late Show, Paul Jackson, the station's head of programming, said he was proud of the work it had done since ousting Thames: 'Body and Soul, Frank Stubbs, London Tonight, I could go on . . .' He couldn't, of course. That was it. Carlton has won its ratings by finding the lowest common denominator then halving it. There is no room for taxing drama like Thames's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, or the painstaking inquiries of This Week: pains take money. Instead, we get The Big Story lathering itself into a tabloid froth. Carlton's attempt to take over Central should alarm everyone who cares about the health of television. In its poxy embrace, any ITV company could go the way of all flash.
The Government is entirely to blame: you can't throw commercial television to the wolves and then, seeing the bloody mess, complain that the wolves should have better table manners. Drama has been badly gored: all proposals should now come bearing a big comic name, regardless of whether said name is so big that he or she will sink the enterprise. In All or Nothing at All (ITV, first of three), Hugh Laurie was sad and subtle as Leo the gambler sent to the bad by an excess of good nature. He was supported by superb actors - Pippa Guard, Caroline Quentin - and Bob Monkhouse.
Bob was playing Leo's boss. He wasn't dreadful. He didn't wink and say 'Fank you, layees'n'gennelmen', but nor was he a patch on thousands of unemployed thesps. Seeing a funny face in a serious context ('Ooh look, there's that Full House bloke') is a five-minute wonder. Then comes the 55-minute wonder in which you ask yourself why it is you could never believe that Bob's your uncle, or even your dentist. Bob's your Bob. His sticky, uncompromising presence was a blot on Guy Andrews's startlingly intelligent work.
Over on Channel 4, Barry Levinson's Homicide - an imported show about rough-and-unready cops in a Baltimore precinct - continues to prove what can be achieved if you aim high. Levinson's first film was Diner, an indecently brilliant tale of young guys chewing the fat in a bar: he has since punched in a couple of stinkers to reassure us mere mortals. But here he is back on divine form, returning to the ensemble piece, the microcosm with the macro implications. Levinson's method is as fractured and fractious as that of his great predecessor, John Cassavetes. At first it feels too itchy, but soon you grow accustomed to its pace. A cop pounds the desk with his fist, and we see it replayed three fast, furious times. Like Eadweard Muybridge, the early photographer who obsessively captured a horse in motion, Levinson wants to see what makes men go.
Last Monday, the air-conditioning broke and emotions surfaced with the sweat. Stanley (the incomparable Ned Beatty), who is a little low on hygiene and esteem, was plucking up courage to ask the pathologist for a date, Munch (crazy Norwegian by name, crazy guy by nature) was spooling a bilious riff on astrology: 'Your head is Uranus.' Kay was coping with her cancerous sister on the phone, Crosetti with his baby Beatrice who grew up while he wasn't looking and now wants to have sex with a boy. In a corner, keen Tim was working on a child's murder, mocked by Pembleton the impeccable dude. Pembleton made a cat's cradle over and over, the pleasures of Homicide itself in his hands: deft fingers twisting an intricate mesh, the knowing when to tug the loop, when to let go.
Children's Hospital (BBC1) had a distressing but responsible film about a baby who couldn't breathe. In his astronaut's tubing, James looked like the child who fell to earth by mistake. Seeing the thought and love that went into deciding when it was time to let him go, it was hard to think of a better definition of the civilised. For the uncivilised, we had 40 Minutes: Girl Friends (BBC2). Gail and Mitzi have cast off that old-fashioned, romantic idea of the zipless fuck and become evangelists for the couldn't-care-less variety. They lead lives of noisy desperation, which were captured with great skill and no little cruelty by director Marc Munden. Beach scenes of searing, Hockneyesque beauty were intercut with close-ups of faces without even a dab of powder to disguise the pending pustules. 'D'ya think we'll ever be married?' shrieked Mitzi. Not after this they won't.
Like a walrus surfacing through an oil slick, Michael Gambon made the role of The Entertainer (BBC2) his own. Simon Curtis's production of John Osborne's play about the splenetic spasms of family life in Suez Britain got the period setting just right, (the Rice household was not so much gin palace as gin hovel), but the feelings never felt dated. Billie Whitelaw was superb as the querulous Phoebe, playing the cracked record of disappointment over and over. And Gambon was Archie, from the careless swagger to the glistening, anxious eyes. Soft-shoe shuffling across the stage, he looked like a wardrobe dancing. And then there was that face: it would be a wholly distinguished face were its eyes not looking at something frightful we cannot see, were mournfulness not tugging at its jowls.
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